The speakers demanded repeal of UAPA and said that there was no place for such laws in a democracy
NEW DELHI – A group of prominent civil society members Thursday condemned the use of draconian laws like UAPA and incarceration of activists by the Narendra Modi government and vowed to reclaim the streets for protests in order to protect democracy and constitutional values of the country.
While speaking at a press conference at the Press Club of India here, they said the police were using powers to implicate those who express dissent or oppose the policies of the Modi regime.
The presser was held in response to the arrest of the anti-CAA activists and the recent ruling by Supreme Court on Shaheen Bagh, declaring that street protests have to be held at designated places.
The speakers included internationally-acclaimed author Arundhati Roy; Magsaysay awardee and Convener of the Safai Karamchari Andolan Bezwada Wilson; leading feminist Prof. Nivedita Menon; co-founder of United Against Hate (UAH) Nadeem Khan; eminent Supreme Court lawyers Sanjay Hegde and Prashant Bhushan, and Swaraj India president Yogendra Yadav.
“Protests at designated places are antithetical to the idea of democracy,” said Menon. She said that the anti-CAA protest was non-violent and that there had been a tradition of road-blocks as a form of protests. She said the protesters were there to defend the Constitution.
Yadav, in his address, talked about how police employed different tactics to deny the permission for protests and used harsh laws against those who came out in protest against the government.
He underlined the importance of the idea of street protests as, he said, the contestation was central to democracy. “Jab sadkein suni ho jaati hai, toh sansad awaara ho jaata hai,” Yadav said reading out famous lines by late parliamentarian Ram Manohar Lohiya.
The speakers demanded repeal of UAPA and said that there was no place for such laws in a democracy.
Nadeem Khan of UAH recalled how the Delhi police, who claimed to have been unable to open the pattern lock of the accused in the case of forced disappearance of Najeeb Ahmed in JNU, were now confiscating hundreds of phones of activists to frame them for attending protests.
He said, “We are proud that UAH has been working on the unconstitutional laws like NRC since 2017. We have been following up on different cases of lynching and hate crimes. If protests and press conferences are ‘conspiracies’, then we will keep doing more of them.” He also added, “Today is 22nd October, the death anniversary of Ashfaqullah Khan. We pledge on this day that we will continue the struggles of Bismil and Ashfaq, the same struggle that our jailed voices were continuing.”
Bezwada Wilson said normal things were deemed ‘dissent’. “Today, even talking about the burning of the Dalit girl’s body in Hathras has become a tough act of dissent. To say that our shameful position in hunger index has become an act of dissent. This is because they do not want us to say any of these things. If we do, we become anti-nationals. Today, even what Ambedkar said will be considered dissent.”
Sanjay Hegde said the Constitution was a product of both dissent and the recognition of dissent. “Over the last few years, dissent has been muzzled, tampered and violated. But I am hopeful. Our generation fought, future generations will also follow,” he said.
Prashant Bhushan, whose video clip was showcased at the presser, lamented that those young voices which stood against divisive politics and stood for constitutional values are today being framed and put behind bars. He said if the Delhi Police did not relent, their image would be that like the UP police.
Arundhati Roy lashed out at the mainstream media for failing to question the government. “The media has become spineless.” She accused the media of “endangering life of someone like Umar Khalid with their ludicrous claims.”
“It is humiliating,” she said, “to live in an atmosphere where people are constantly marinated in hatred. We have to realise despite our differences that we are up against fascism. If we don’t realise that, we are going to be squeezed out like toothpaste, and there would be no way back.”
She urged the groups and political formations to set aside their differences and fight together.